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New migraine med developed by SD natives

ABERDEEN, S.D. — When Ryan Darling and Kirk Johnson were growing up in Aberdeen, science was their thing.

But they wouldn’t know each other until they met as scientists at the global pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly in Indianapolis.

Johnson, 57, graduated from Central High School in 1980.

Darling, 44, graduated from Roncalli High School in 1992.

Together they have made significant contributions to the development of a new medication approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration. The drug, Emgality, is a once-per-month injection designed to prevent migraines.

“For both of us, this is a really big deal and probably the height of our careers,” Johnson said.

Working together

The two started working on the drug in 2003. As with so many undertakings in their field, there were a lot of failures in the first five or six years, Darling said.

When developing pharmaceuticals, failure is more the norm than the exception, Johnson said, equating it to gambling in Las Vegas.

“Many of our colleagues will go through their careers without ever having a drug that goes to market,” he said.

Eli Lilly has 4,000 employees worldwide and at least 1,000 at the headquarters. That’s why Darling and Johnson worked for the company for some time before learning they were from the same hometown.

“Someone said, ‘Aren’t you from South Dakota? You know Ryan is from there as well,’” Johnson said.

Their individual roles would bring them together on the project.

Johnson has focused on migraines for more than 25 years, particularly the biology behind what kind of medicine could help.

“It used to be that we’d work on a certain target, drug class or mechanism of action. In one case, we had a drug and we were looking for what we could use it on. That’s when migraine came up for me, and then I developed an expertise,” Johnson said.

Darling works across many therapeutic areas, from diabetes to cancer and more. His job is to work on the design of the molecule itself, he said. That ensures the drug has the properties needed so that the medicine is safe, effective and can be manufactured on a large scale.

Their work is highly confidential. So much so that their families often don’t know what they are working on. All Johnson’s family knew was that he worked on drugs for migraines.

“A press release came out that said the compound was successful in a clinical trial for migraine. The day that my son texted me from college and said, ‘Dad, I just saw this release. Is that one of your drugs?’ and I could say yes, that was a highlight,” Johnson said.

“Personally, it’s a really big deal. We all know or have friends and family members that have migraines,” he said.

Helping others

Johnson got both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at University of South Dakota.

Darling got his bachelor’s degree at Northern State University. He earned his master’s degree from the University of Michigan and his doctorate at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Helping people has always been the goal, even early in their education and careers.

“I was drawn to math, science and medicine because that is what I enjoyed in school. Success in what we do can literally mean millions of people will benefit from our work,” Darling said.

But it was his adviser at Northern, Lenore Koczon, who suggested graduate school.

“Without that I wouldn’t be where I’m at now,” Darling said.

The research, a general love of science and the experimentation — ultimately working on solving problems that others haven’t been able to — were key to getting into the field, he said.

For Johnson, science was his first love, followed closely by an interest in medicine.

“And I came to the realization that you can help people without being a physician,” he said.

Seeing the effect on people’s health and lives is the ultimate motivator.

“So much of what you do ultimately fails. That can be demoralizing after a while. So we need to celebrate the successes when they occur,” Darling said.

The work is never really done, though.

“The challenge is that even though (Emgality) made it to market, it doesn’t work in every person,” Johnson said. “So there’s still more work to do.”